Ryan relaxed his hand against Taylor’s forehead, then raised his other to join it. Two hands made more a better connection, more painful, but stronger, less likely to break, less likely to kick him out before he had the information he needed.
Stef was-
Taylor was right, he needed to know.
He closed his eyes, and dove into the combat agent’s mind.
Taylor let him in, there was no resistance like there had been all the previous times he’d done it. None of the thrashing or useless attempts to keep him out as there had been with Stef. Gods, if she was-
He felt himself adjust, and he opened his eyes in Taylor’s mind.
A square room, with red walls going translucent as he stared at them, Taylor in a corner, a door forming around him. ‘This way.’ Taylor pushed on the door, and the wall cracked, shattering to reveal the gala. Taylor walked through the memories of gala guests, each offering no more resistance than a shadow as they found their way across the gala floor towards Taylor’s memory of himself.
As they approached, he began to feel the other agent’s emotions, feeling echoes of thoughts- His perspective skewed, and he found himself taller, broader, inhabiting Taylor’s memory version of himself.
‘I don’t want to do this,’ he said. ‘Seeing it will be enough.’
‘It’s Mimosa,’ Taylor said, ‘you won’t trust me unless you see it all.’
‘I’m in your memory already, it’s violation enough without-’
He saw Stef out of the corner of his eye and felt Taylor’s wave of revulsion as she touched his back. Barely a touch at all – something he wouldn’t have noticed, but something that had disgusted Taylor. The hate disappeared, quickly replaced with confusion. He could hear Taylor’s thoughts, hear all the questions as to why she would touch him.
‘She’s never willingly touched me,’ Taylor said, standing close to his memory of Magnolia. ‘Not outside of a fight,’ he clarified. ‘This wasn’t a fight.’
He stared at Stef’s reflection in the wine glass as Curt dragged her from the room. There was a slow count to six in Taylor’s head, then he raised his head to scan Stef and Curt as they left. Stef read as Stef, of course, but Curt’s reading was strange – initially reading as human, but changing to read as agent after the scan read through the glamour.
‘Clarke,’ Taylor said. ‘Glamours don’t usually do that. Tech help, but I doubt it was Jones. Fae could do it.’
Another slow count to five, then he reached down to touch Magnolia’s arm. Love and lust spiked for a brief second, then he pressed a knuckle into her upper arm. Magnolia’s knee touched his, and she finished her conversation quickly, but without seeming to rush.
The anteroom was the next stop – Magnolia pulling on straps of her dress to remove the skirt, revealing skin-tight pants and a belt that could only be described as a combat dision emergency kit – a knife, a gun, and seveal pouches. This only took a moment, and then they rushed out of the room.
‘How did you know which way they’d gone,’ Ryan asked as Taylor kept pace with the memory of himself. ‘There’s a dozen exits and-’
Taylor gave him a withering look. ‘Eight. And not eight if you’re kidnapping the guest of honour. Three are elimiated immediately due to press. Another two because they’re crowded. One is very indirect and would take too much time. Another is a service entrance and could draw questions. We followed the most likely route. It was correct.’
‘Sorry,’ he said, wanting to break out of the memory of Taylor’s body and chase after his daughter himself. He’d failed her. He’d failed her and it had been nearly catastrophic. Whatever had happened was his fault.
They ran down a short set of stairs, and followed a lone limousine down a service driveway.
Magnolia disappeared from between them, fading in front of the car, and jumping onto the bonnet. There was a short shout as the driver was incapacitated. Taylor’s body moved forward and grabbed the rear door of the limo, with a grunt and a wrench, he pulled the door from its hinges.
Taylor’s feeling of satisfaction was intoxicating – the fact that he’d done such an act, without the safety of the system, and without injuring himself – or as Taylor’s thoughts put it “not limiting immediate battle-readiness”.
The memory froze for a moment as Taylor stepped into his field of vision. ‘Sir.’
He pulled himself down from Taylor’s fading high, the heavy sense of dread returning. Clarke had hurt her, and it was his fault. Whatever he’d done, it was because he wasn’t there to protect her. Was because he’d invited the agent to repair bridges that no one wanted.
He looked up and met Taylor’s gaze. ‘Not knowing is worse.’
Taylor gave a quiet grunt, stepped away, and the memory resumed.
He saw two things immediately as he dropped the door. Clarke’s face, a mix of smug satisfaction tinged with fear, and Stef-
No. Gods no.
He collapsed, pulling himself free of Taylor’s perspective. He stared through memory-Taylor’s legs at the again-frozen scene in the car. Clarke’s pants were down around his ankles, his flaccid self in his hand, a grin on his face, despite the fear in his eyes.
Stef lay on the floor of the limo, naked, bruised, sticky strands of white on her face and hair.
‘He only had a few minutes,’ Taylor said. ‘We didn’t account for this, because it’s not what it looks like.’
He crawled forward, through the frozen memory, into the limo, and held the fetal copy of his daughter. He’d failed the toddler, his recruit, his agent, his daughter. So many times, and he kept failing her. He brushed his hand over the frozen memory’s plastic-feeling cheek.
‘What?’ he asked, the word ripping itself from throat.
‘You have to see this.’
He gripped the memory of Stef tighter for a moment, then blanked his expression and pulled away from her.
Taylor moved into the limo, and indicated at the empty seats with a sharp nod of his head.
The memory resumed, and he was grateful to be out of Taylor’s perspective, the situation was- It was already too much without the immediacy of being in the other man’s memories, feeling everything new and raw and as if it was happening, as if there was something he could do about it.
The memory of Taylor growled and pushed his way into the limo, one massive leg unceremoniously kicking Stef further away from Clarke.
Clarke opened his mouth and said a single word.
Ryan shuddered. Even though it wasn’t aimed at him, even if it was second hand, and in a memory, the word still hit him, freezing him for the briefest of seconds as memory-Taylor was paralysed, dropping to the floor of the car beside Stef. Angel magic. Dangerous magic. Audio-based hacks of their OS that could be used on each other when a situation called for it. When a situation called for it, or when someone wanted to abuse the system.
Memory-Taylor twitched on the floor, growling and swearing – the word being used was obviously of the variety that still allowed a victim to talk.
‘Why are you here?’ Clarke asked. ‘And Mags, if you move too quickly, I’ll freeze his lungs.’ Clarke turned to look out of the limo, at Mags. ‘Get in here, bitch.’
Magnolia slowly moved into the limo, and moved behind Taylor, propping him up so that he could better shout obscenities at Clarke.
‘I’ll ask again,’ Clarke said, licking his fingers, ‘why are you here?’
Memory-Taylor gave a short grunt.
‘You’re not here for her, don’t pretend for a second that you are. You give less of a fuck about her than I do.’ Clarke narrowed his eyes. ‘No, I misspoke. You do give more of a fuck, but it’s a good old hatefuck, you’ve wanted her gone since she was a recruit, so I’ll ask you again, why are you here?’
‘What are you doing?’ Memory-Taylor asked.
Clarke poured himself a drink. ‘Making a fortune. You’re an idiot, but I think Mags knows what’s going on.’
‘You’re selling her,’ Magnolia said flatly.
‘Right. So all you have to do is walk away, and we all get rid of her. Turn your back, and she’s not a problem anymore.’
Memory-Taylor formed a fist, the paralyses already burning away. ‘No.’
‘Why?’ Clarke asked. ‘What possible reason do you have for stopping me?’
Memory-Taylor sat up under his own power, and shrugged off his tuxedo jacket, which Magnolia took and used to cover Stef.
‘You’re not getting away with this,’ memory-Taylor said.
‘No,’ Clarke said, ‘I am getting away with this. You two turn around and walk, and I do get away with this, and we all profit.’
He heard Stef start to cry, and his heart sank lower.
He watched as Magnolia wrapped Stef in the tuxedo jacket, the jacket swimming on her, covering her from the world, protecting her from Clarke’s gaze.
‘Are you going to get out of my way?’ Clarke asked.
‘Sir,’ Magnolia said.
Ryan looked back to Magnolia, who had a hand laid flat on Stef’s back.
Magnolia’s elbow came down hard on the back of Stef’s head, knocking her to the floor of the limo, blood leaking from her mouth.
His hands tightened into fists, fighting the urge to step forward and hurt the memory of Magnolia.
Memory-Taylor turned to Magnolia, the magpie looking up to give her report without prompting. ‘She’s got a heartbeat, sir.’
‘Shit.’ Stef spat, sitting up, suddenly appearing a lot less weak.
‘You stupid whore,’ Clarke snapped. ‘You had one job!’
Stef’s face melted, and her body seemed to inflate a little as she stood and moved down the car towards Clarke – a shapeshifter. ‘I guess I’m fired.’
‘Get out of my sight.’
The shapeshifter shrugged, but memory-Taylor grabbed her arm, and swung her against the seat next to Clarke.
‘Explain,’ memory-Taylor snapped.
Clarke smiled a cruel, condescending smile. ‘It’s a move she would have appreciated. I got her out of here forty minutes ago. I hid her in a moss and they walked out with the guest of honour inside. No one saw.’
‘Bullshit,’ Magnolia snapped, ‘then you’d have no reason to do this.’
‘Sure I do,’ Clarke said. ‘Do you know how much crap I’ve taken over her? How many extra hours I’ve had to work because Ryan couldn’t act more like an agent, because he couldn’t respect his duty? I have been waiting for a chance to have her on her knees showing me some damn respect. The real one is gone, this was just for me, just a bit of role play, just a bit of fun.’
Memory-Taylor took a crouched step toward Clarke, and stopped as his foot came down on a section of the floor. ‘Cover them,’ he ordered Magnolia, even though the recruit already looked ready to kill at a second’s notice. He reached back, and Magnolia automatically passed her the knife in her hand, switching to the gun from her belt without blinking. The combat agent went to one knee and dragged the tip of the knife over the area until a click filled the limo.
Ryan looked to Clarke’s face, the cocksure grin gone, the fear a lot more noticeable.
A hidden compartment sprang open, and Taylor pulled a heavy sack free. With no room to manoeuvre, memory-Taylor pulled the sack free of the limo and spilled the contents – Stef – onto the road. This Stef still wore her uniform, even if it was dishevelled, and only sported a few cuts on her face – a fresh looking one likely coming from Taylor’s rough way of getting her out of the bag. Taylor didn’t even look at Stef, instead shaking the bag in an accustory manner. ‘You stole this,’ he snapped.
They followed the memories out the limo, and stood off to the side, out of the way.
‘It was Agency property,’ Clarke said.
Ryan looked away from the scene and the memory paused. ‘I don’t recognise the bag.’
‘Fabric is flooded with magic, makes items invisible to the system, and to several other methods of detection. It’s good for sentient trafficking.’
‘Why do you own something like that?’
‘It was a trophy.’
The memory resumed, and Stef began to stir at the feet of memory-Taylor. She saw Clarke, screamed and scrambled back, behind Taylor, before crawling into herself and crying.
Tears welled in his eyes, but Taylor shook his head. ‘Not her, either.’
‘Another shapeshifter?’
Taylor nodded. ‘This wasn’t a cheap operation.’
‘How about a good, old fashioned bribe?’ Clarke asked. ‘Ten percent, I’ll give you ten percent and we all walk away from this better for it.’
‘That number’s insulting,’ Magnolia said.
‘You have no idea what they paid for her,’ Clarke said. ‘Ten percent is enough for the both of you to fall, and live comfortably for the rest of your lives.’
‘They paid that for an agent?’ Taylor’s memory asked.
‘They never pay that much for agents.’ Clarke shook his head. ‘No, they paid that for the cunt who saved the world, and the pound of mirror in her chest.’
‘What do you mean never?’ Ryan found himself asking in unison with memory-Taylor.
‘Come now,’ Clarke said as he lit a cigarette. ‘Do you think this is the first time I’ve sold an agent? She’s a thorn in my dick, but she’s not the first agent to piss me off, no, Samuels got that honour.’
‘Samuels?’ Ryan said. ‘Samuels-’
‘Given the context,’ Taylor said, ‘I believe him.’
‘Samuels is alive?’ memory-Taylor asked.
Clarke shook his head. ‘No, he only lasted a couple of years, they got his wings though. I was there when they took them, I’ve never seen an agent cry so much until you beta tested that bitch,’ he said, flicking his cigarette ash towards Stef.
Ryan felt his stomach turn. ‘I never suspected-’
Taylor turned to look at him. ‘Did any of us?’ he asked.
‘I might not want my own Court like her father does,’ Clarke said, ‘but power is its own reward, and this will do a lot for me. I intend to go back to work in the morning, serving the Agency serves me for the moment. You two- Tell me the truth, the only reason you two came back was because you needed the medical attention. You would have stayed away. I’m not judging, I’m giving you a way to get free.’
‘Fifteen percent,’ Magnolia said. ‘Sir. Fifteen or fifteen and a half percent?’
Memory-Taylor looked from Magnolia, to Stef, and after a moment, finally to Clarke. ‘Fifteen and a half percent.’
Ryan’s fists clenched. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard. Just as culpable as-
He took as deep a breath as he could manage.
Taylor wouldn’t be there, wouldn’t be showing him his memories, wouldn’t have even returned to the Agency if the situation was what it seemed.
He took another breath.
‘Fifteen and a half?’ Clarke asked, a note of hope rising into his voice. ‘You’ll let me take her, and say nothing of it, for fifteen and a half?’
‘Problem?’ memory-Taylor growled.
Clarke smiled. ‘I would have gone to twenty-five, too late now.’
He walked across, smiling but wary, and grabbed Stef by her hair.
Ryan tried to distance himself from the situation. It wasn’t Stef, it just looked like her, it wasn’t Stef and Taylor’s silence hadn’t been bought.
He tried to breathe.
Clarke sank both of his hands into- Into the shapeshifter holding Stef’s form, dragged her head up, ignoring her crying, and rubbed her face against his crotch. ‘They paid for pristine condition, well, pristine, minus whatever travel damage she took.’ Clarke smiled. ‘I’m reconsidering it, though.’ He looked up at memory-Taylor. ‘Fifteen, I didn’t realise you were so cheap.’
Memory-Taylor affected an awkward shift in his posture. ‘Is it necessary to shake?’
‘Can you even touch a person without hurting them?’ Clarke shoved the shapeshifter back against the ground. ‘Sure, why the hell not?’
He walked up to memory-Taylor and held out his hand.
The memory of Taylor stared at the hand, then reached up and snapped Clarke’s neck.
Ryan reeled from the noise, his eyes wide as the liaison agent fell to the ground.
Clarke hit the ground, then stood, the memory rewinding to show the moment again. He fought through the shock this time, committing the details to memory. The fluidity of Taylor’s movement, the strength of the precise twist of the head, the sound. The sound of a bastard getting what he deserved, the sound of-
The sound of Taylor protecting Stef. Saving her.
‘Thank you,’ he whispered. ‘Thank you for being there. Thank you for-’
The memory froze.
‘I know what I did,’ Taylor said. ‘You don’t need to restate it.’
‘You saved my daughter, I can’t overstate that enough.’
‘I’m a combat agent,’ Taylor said. ‘Protecting agents is my part of my duty.’
The words came carefully, precisely. Taylor had known what he’d said. Still, it wasn’t something he could ignore. ‘You just called her an agent, Taylor.’
Taylor gave a grunt.
Taylor growled, cutting him off. ‘Phoenix. What she did. It was- Admirable. Brave. For her duty.’ He turned towards him and glared. ‘She’s weak. She’s- She’s unstable. Not- Not Whitman. Would fail in a different way. She doesn’t deserve to be an agent. Didn’t earn it.’ He growled. ‘She’s doing her duty at least.’ He kicked Clarke’s dead body. ‘He wasn’t. This was betraying the Agency. Working for himself. His duty was himself. Not right. Not an agent. This was the only way to correct it.’
‘You still haven’t shown me what happened to Stef.’
Taylor inclined his head and the memory resumed.
The shapeshifter at memory-Taylor’s feet cried, and hugged his leg.
Memory-Taylor’s posture changed again, this time, from the affected awkwardness, to deep suspicion. He kicked the shapeshifter and stomped on her chest.
Ryan pressed down heavily on his knees, keeping the idea that it wasn’t Stef flashing in his mind. That it wasn’t Taylor hurting his daughter again, that it wasn’t more stress tests.
‘Stop, please!’ the shapeshifter cried, in a very good impression of Stef’s voice.
Memory-Taylor grabbed her closest hand and drew a bloody line up her forearm with the knife. The wound started to heal, and memory-Taylor snarled.
‘Fine,’ the shapeshifter said, doing a good impression of Stef’s pout. The illusion dropped away, and the shapeshifter – this time, in the form of a young man, stood. ‘I’m indentured and only doing as I’m ordered.’
‘Where’s the real Mimosa?’
The shapeshifter looked around, then raised his eyebrows.
Memory-Taylor spun, and saw the first shapeshifter sprinting down the road.
The recruit faded before memory-Taylor had finished shouting her name.
Magnolia appeared in front of the shapeshifter, and kicked her in the face.
Memory-Taylor ran to catch up with his recruit and the shapeshifter, and they kept pace with the memory.
Magnolia stared at the shapeshifter. ‘Sir, hold her.’
Memory-Taylor grabbed the imposter and Magnolia pulled a lighter from one of the pouches. The large flame sprang to life and Magnolia thrust it under the shapeshifter’s chin. She caught alight in a few seconds, a high-pitched squeal filling the air as she strugged.
The shapeshifter’s skin seem to slough off as it split and sank towards the ground, trying to extinguish the spreading flames.
‘Moss,’ Taylor said as he watched himself pull Stef free of the flailing fae. ‘We’ve seen them used for trafficking before. The additional glamour was unusual. Dangerous. He counted on distraction.’
‘It almost worked,’ Ryan said.
The moss continued to shriek as Magnolia burnt it, until there was nothing but ashes left.
Memory-Taylor slapped Stef on the back, and she puked traces of the moss. He wiped his hand over her face, and wiped the residue on her clothes. She swooned in his arms, slumping, her eyes closed.
‘Magnolia,’ memory-Taylor said as he lowered Stef to the ground.
‘Yes sir.’
Magnolia swabbed Stef’s mouth, and dropped it into a thin plastic tube. It turned red immediately.
‘Overdose of evening glory,’ Magnolia said, ‘or something similar.’ She jabbed a pin into Stef’s neck. ‘That will start to clear her system, watch your shoes, sir.’
It only took a moment for Stef to start vomiting.
Memory-Taylor looked to Magnolia. ‘Call O’Connor.’
Taylor looked at him, blood streaming down his nose. ‘Do you know what you need to know now?’
Ryan severed the connection immediately, and felt his mind fall back into his own body as though it weighed a tonne. He heard Taylor roaring like a mortally-wounded animal, before he registered the sounds of his own screams.
Hands gripped his, and they held each other as the waves of pain subsided.
Twenty minutes later, Taylor let him go and stumbled to the couch.
He sat up, and leaned against the leg of his desk. ‘That’s not- What happened after that?’
Taylor wiped blood onto his uniform sleeve. ‘Magnolia called O’Connor. Told him what happened. He took her. Informed palace guards.’
Ryan refreshed his skin, clearing some of the blood and the pain. ‘Any legal issues we have to deal with?’
‘Unauthorised sale of an independent sentient,’ Taylor said. ‘And the focus of the gala. They gave us a reward,’ he pulled an envelope from a pocket, and threw it onto the floor, ‘and dealt with the body.’
‘Will Curt be all right with her?’
‘It wasn’t poison, it just needs to clear from her system. He took all the emergency blue we had. Physical effects will be gone by tomorrow.’ He paused. ‘Later today.’
Ryan pulled in a long breath. ‘Why didn’t you?’
‘You didn’t call us traitors,’ Taylor said. ‘Could have. Didn’t.’ He looked away. ‘Owed you.’
‘Fifteen and a half percent?’
‘I don’t understand forty-one percent of what Mimosa says. Words come with context. Tactically prudent that I’m able to communicate anything with Mangolia without another person understanding.’
Ryan found a small smile. ‘I’m impressed you understand that much.’
Taylor gave him a neutral look.
There was a knock at the door, and Jones walked in. ‘Mags filled me in, and I understand that has been a horrific night for everyone, but Merlin is over twenty stories tall, covered in leaves, and we need to report a dead agent to central.’
It was her death all over again, no time to be a worried father, to go to her side. He couldn’t be a father, he had to be an agent.
Ryan looked to Taylor. ‘Are you sure she’s going to be fine?’
Taylor shrugged. ‘Depends on how much you trust O’Connor.’
That wasn’t even a question. He trusted Curt with her life.
He required a new uniform, aware that he was still sitting on the floor of his office. ‘Conference room in five, I just need to call him first.’